Research findings have discovered a new way to help prevent the spread of flu in nursing homes. Story by Antigone Anagnostellis.

It's important to immunise everybody against the flu, including nursing home staff. Photo: BC Gov Photos / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

In a new study, University of Sydney researchers have found that the drug Tamiflu may be the best solution to seasonal influenza outbreaks in Australian nursing homes.

The clinical trial took place over 16 care facilities in Sydney and surrounding areas. It found that using the drug as a preventative measure, and not only for treatment, can help control the spread of influenza virus.

Academic geriatrician and study researcher, Professor Richard Lindley, said that it is important to target those around the sick. “We found that using a policy that, providing Tamiflu for all those who have flu symptoms and all those in the immediate environment, including the staff, was an effective strategy for not only reducing the number of residents affected but also in reducing the outbreak.”

The trial lowered rates of infection in residents to 36.5 per cent and the duration of the outbreak to 13 days.

Although the study group expect the findings to be included in aged care facility guidelines, Mr Lindley said that doctors should remain cautious of over-prescription.

“If GP’s started using Tamiflu for every cough and sneeze in a nursing home, I think we would likely spread a resistance rather than do a great deal of good. Like all antibiotics or anti-virals, I think you have to use the medication thoughtfully,” he said.

Randall Wheatley, an Adelaide based community aged care worker has welcomed the study. He directs a transitional aged care program, which deals with clients moving between hospital, nursing homes and their homes.

“In my direct work, in what I do day to day, a person who had significant influenza would probably require hospitalisation and that is a huge cost to the community with respect to running a hospital bed and the demand on the hospital system… so anything we can do to reduce that is beneficial,” he said.

Mr Wheatley also said that, for the elderly, the experience of lying in a hospital bed for an extended period of time means the loss of normal exercise, diet and social habits.

So illness isn’t just about the illness itself but it’s about the effect on the whole person,” he said.

The study identified that influenza outbreaks in nursing homes are a source of local community infection. “The staff or the visitors clearly brought the influenza into the nursing home and when an outbreak was going home, the potential was for the staff to take the influenza virus out into the community,” Professor Lindley said.

In 2007, the federal government ruled out providing compulsory shots to nursing home staff and residents. However, a free vaccination is currently available, and recommended, by the state health department.

The trial, funded by the Australian Research Council, was difficult to carry out but Professor Lindley thinks we should have more research. “I think, given our ageing population and the increasing numbers of people who are living in such facilities, I think it’s vital that we get good evidence of how best to look after people,” he said.

Mr Wheatley suggested that the future of aged care is in the home. “There is certainly awareness within the funding bodies and the government that’s what people want and so funding is tending to move in that direction,” he said.

The study group said that they would like to see state health departments employing administrators who conduct active surveillance by regularly calling nursing homes and providing guidance during influenza outbreaks.

The Department of Health and Ageing said they were unable to comment on commercial drug trials or their implications.